“You can’t break the ball. Can’t break the floor. Can’t break anything in a bowling alley. And that’s what I like about bowling alleys. Can’t even break the record.”
Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by: Judith Guest (novel), Alvin Sargent (screenplay)
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People dissects characters of a single family, affected by the tragedy of losing the eldest son in a boating accident. In peeling back the perfect and stable demeanor of a suburban family, Ordinary People looks at the different ways in which people deal with loss – whether it’s from the perspective of an emotionally volatile teen, a controlling mother, or a father who tries to mediate every conflict and smooth things over as the good guy.
Ordinary People opens with Conrad’s (Hutton) return to ordinary family life and school after his suicide attempt and some consequent time spent at a psychiatric hospital. But trying to keep up appearances, as his mother (Tyler Moore) does, or keep everybody happy and unconcerned, as his father does (Sutherland), proves to be more difficult than Conrad could have imagined. Unlike his parents, Conrad carries his sadness with him everywhere he goes. In his swimming training, choir practices, and even when taking a girl out on a date, Conrad’s inability to move on from his brother’s death creeps into every word and gesture he makes. Conrad’s meetings with a psychiatrist (Hirsch) slowly begin to open up Conrad’s painful experiences and tense relationships with his parents, until the family need to confront their issues head on.
Rather than simply exposing the tragedy early on in the film and letting the social implications play out in a predictable way, Ordinary People lets the audience read the signs of tension, conflict, and tragedy that permeate every conversation and interaction the family members have with each other. Scenes are loaded with emotional significance and are played out beautifully with strong performances and deeply moving character development.
Family drama can often feel a little cheap in film. You will find plenty of films that expose the cracks in suburban families, and plenty of tales of loss, suicide, teen angst, and so on, but rarely do you find one that is this perceptive and moving.